Turn up the Volume: The Audio Archive and Ways of Listening
Sguardi Sonori presentation at Discoteca di Stato and the Center for American Studies
June 27, 2008
By Neil Leonard
This year’s edition of Sguardi Sonori is hosted, in part, by Discoteca di Stato (DDS), an extensive archive and study center dedicated to the preservation of sonic memory. The archive houses tens of thousands of hours of sound from around the world, with an emphasis on the unique sonic culture of Italy, including music, political speeches, and ambient sound of social events.
In this venue, Scanner (Robin Rimbaud), Kim Cascone, and I will present a concert of live electronics works. The personal collections of sounds we each work and tour with mirror DDS’s comprehensive collection. In our case, however, the collections are not the final product or center of discourse, but rather, raw material that we process to generate new works.
I was introduced to Scanner’s early work by my students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in the early 1990’s. They were fascinated by Scanner’s inventive recycling of disposable sounds from police scanners, which he collected for his early compositions – and from which he adopted his stage name, Scanner. His use of the disembodied voices and electronic noises, produced by scanning devices, did much to focus our critical discussion on the writings of Luigi Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and on the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose readymade sculptures of the early 20th century strongly suggested that sonic equivalents were just a matter of time.
Mining the airwaves, Scanner built an important body of work that changed to reflect the character of each location in which he eavesdropped. While John Cage explored similar ideas of appropriated broadcast and sound maps in his Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 12 radios, digital technology handed Scanner the means to create real-time sound-maps that include the most private transmissions.
Like Scanner, Cascone has spent years constructing a sonic archive that fuels his current performances. Cascone’s work draws on a vast collection of sounds he created with hardware and software synthesizers. He builds home-brew software to navigate this repository in concert. After recycling and mixing these sounds algorithmically, to create a meta-soundscape, Cascone remixes them again on stage.
Cascone’s work epitomizes the extent to which new technologies are continually reshaping the ways we listen to, and work with, audio. In his recent Spectral Space, for example, Cascone uses indeterminacy to mimic the media overload that surrounds us. The work examines our ability to assimilate and decode this dense, omnipresent chorus of disembodied sound that has nothing to say, and yet, dominates our cultural soundscape. The result is a non-narrative performance in which Cascone finds “tangles of sounds that glint, shimmer, collide and implode within the fabric of noise.”
My own sonic archive has a distinct component of field recordings I collected while I was living in Italy for much of 2006. The sounds range from recordings of ancient Lazio ritual, that Dr. Massimo Pistacchi, Director of DDS, generously shared with me to recordings I made of Joseph Kournelli’s installation (located at La Marrana, the private estate for environmental art in La Spezia) to my recordings of Padovan a cappella groups -- comprised of workers from the open marketplace whose voices are quickly being replaced by the homogenous din of broadcast media. With the aid of computer processing, I have extracted, exaggerated and juxtaposed aspects of these keynote sounds to create a personal sonic statement.
My recent Italian commissions provided opportunities to leverage these sounds in three large scale works, including a permanent installation on the top of a mountain overlooking the Ligurian Sea, in a surround audio installation in the remains of the Templar church, Chiesa San Galgano, and most recently, as part of a 400-meter installation in the porticos of Padova’s historic district. These works explore the colliding sonic identities of new and old worlds and the relationship of the visitor to local histories.
Our short residency at Discoteca di Stato and the Center for American Studies provides several ways to reconsider the audio archive as an essential resource for 21st century art and examine how technological is changing the way we listen to and create sound works.
Sguardi Sonori 2008, Curator
Director, Sonic Arts @ GASP
Professor, Berklee College of Music
Boston, May 2008